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Architecting Software for Freedom in Networked Services

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Free Software history is full of examples of server software that users could install and run autonomously on their own computers, developed to promote server-side user autonomy and decentralization, but that third parties install and run for multiple users, defeating these motivations.

It has happened to such widely-used communication and publishing services as instant messaging, email hosting, blogging, social media, and source code hosting, and to domain-specific software as for managing cities, schools, libraries, shops, restaurants, etc.

An important observation is that it has often happened even when software developers and server maintainers embraced decentralized (federated) architectures, and actively promoted decentralization by encouraging users to install their own servers.

When users' own computing is performed as a service for the users on a server controlled by a third party, the users relinquish control over their computing and their data. That's SaaSS, and that's why it's freedom-denying. If users ran Free Software on a server under their own control instead, they'd retain freedom and privacy. Alas, when they compare the costs of maintaining their own servers and IT staff with outsourcing the server to a service provider that runs the same software for multiple clients, the economies of scale are irresistible for all but the most freedom-concerned users.

These economies of scale tend to lead all server software to outsourcing and (re)centralization, and thus all server-side computing software to SaaSS. Even server software that is Free Software! It doesn't follow that it's unethical to develop Free Software for server-side computing, but even if it's developed with the intent of promoting users' freedoms, the economies of scale it enables play against this goal, driving most users to SaaSS instead. It's a poor strategy to liberate users.

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